When you see a government that works great for the rich,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren shouted at an August 25 mass rally in Seattle, “that is corruption, pure and simple.” The audience cheered her on. Afterwards, she smiled in the bright flash of selfie photos.
Days later, Sen. Bernie Sanders stops his stump speech to ask people what they need. Did your healthcare plan cover you when you were sick and scared? Can you make it by on $15 an hour? Where is your union picket line and can he join it?
In the 2020 presidential race, two candidates run from the left. Warren is a liberal technocrat brandishing detailed plans to fix the nation. She appeals to the middle and upper class. Sanders is a lifelong left populist. His political revolution attracts the young and the working class. The dividing line between them is mass line politics. For her, voting is end of the people’s role. For him, it’s just the beginning.
The Mass Line
What is the role of the people? The question cuts across ideologies from the left to neoliberalism and fascism. The answer determines organizing and propaganda, it shapes how one envisions the future.
Mass line politics is listening to the people, learning what they need, gathering their ideas and using them as the blueprint for action. They and not a revolutionary elite or party bureaucracy are the driving force of historical change. It is often associated with Chairman Mao’s slogan, “From the masses, to the masses” but it was a manipulative tactic to serve his party. An authentic and homegrown version took shape in the civil rights movement in Ella Baker’s “participatory democracy,” which put people at the center in the work of groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. These ordinary Americans were heard. They made decisions in place of a professional activist class. They engaged in direct action. It was a bottom up practice echoed by today’s democratic socialists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who when asked if she ran from the left replied, “I’m running […] from the bottom.”
Against mass line politics is the top-down model. It is the proto-fascist leader who promises to fix everything and save the people. It is the neo-liberal technocrat studying data to splice the electorate into niches. It is the far left, which thinks as Lenin did in What Is To Be Done that the working class defaults to bourgeois reformism and needs the direction of a vanguard party. However much they talk of serving the people, inevitably the top-down model sees them as a means to an end.
What unites Trump, Biden and even Warren is that none of them envisions a role for the people beyond voting. Bernie is the only one practicing a mass line, who calls for a political revolution that involves millions of people. He wants you to protest and strike, run for elected office or go out and knock on doors and phone bank for someone who is. He wants you to grow larger than the silos of identity. He wants you to join with others and act.
The Bermuda Triangulation
“I am a capitalist,” Sen. Warren said on CNBC, “I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft.” When she frames her campaign as a moral corrective to capitalism rather than an effort to tear down an innately immoral system, Warren opens a lane between former Vice President Joe Biden’s centrism and Sen. Sander’s left-wing populism to squeak past both. It’s working. Her rallies are getting larger and more passionate. Her poll numbers rise. Her academic credentials shine ever more brightly against Trump’s buffoonery. Her status as a serious woman candidate, especially one who’s been insulted as “Pocahontas” by a sexist president would give her victory the taste of sweet revenge.
All of it would be a Pyrrhic victory. Warren is doing a classic political triangulation between the center and left. She adopted Sanders’ platform of Medicare-for-all, higher taxes on the rich and free college. In public she seems is in sync with Bernie, even hugging him at the debate. Behind the scenes, she calls Democratic National Committee members to reassure them she wants to lead them back to power. The DNC pulled for Clinton over Sanders in 2016, it voted down a single issue debate on Climate Change and has been the centrist bulwark of the party for decades. Warren is signaling that her triangulation will fall back to the centrist position. Sure, we will get reforms. Sure, it will be a deep symbolic victory to have the first woman president. The cost is the loss of mass line politics and the loss of a presidency that champions a working class movement.
The Center Can Not Hold
“Elizabeth Warren is Bernie with baggage,” conservative commentator S.E. Cupp said on CNN, “She doesn’t have the authenticity that voters really seek. What they love about Bernie is that, agree or disagree with him, you know he believes what he’s saying […] In 2016 Bernie was a cause.”
She’s right. In 2016, Bernie was everywhere. A pop culture fever remade him into every one of us. Gay Bernie. Hip Hop Bernie. Captain America Bernie. He was a vehicle for frustrated hope at the end of the Obama presidency. We wanted what we were promised in the heady days of the 2008 campaign, a historic moment to unify and transform the nation. Obama did not do it. Clinton would not. Bernie could.
Trump’s victory turned that Obama era liberal optimism into a scared defensiveness. Now we ask, who can beat Trump? If the Democratic nominee is too liberal will they lose swing voters? If he or she is too centrist, will we fall into the same trap as before and lose voters who despair of seeing real change? How one answers that question, determines which one of the Holy Trinity — Biden, Warren or Sanders — is seen as “electable.”
The energy in both parties is coming from their respective bases. The deepening divide in wealth and America’s increasing diversity is causing stronger and stronger reaction. In 2016, Bernie rode that wave to the near tipping point of victory. Now his progressive platform has been split by a field of ambitious candidates who are younger, many are women and two are Black. He seems outdated. Bernie served a useful role but the implicit media messaging is that it’s time to shift that loyalty to, say, Warren, who if Biden stumbles badly is positioning herself to pick up the pieces. Lightning can’t strike the same place twice.
But it can. Bernie was never the cause. We were. He was a vehicle for a hope that we could change America. Now he is a vehicle for our hope that we can rescue it. His explicit mass line politics means that the measure of support he has also measures how ready we are to unite with the most vulnerable among us. And it is why Warren’s appeal to the progressive base is a sign of its internal class contradictions. The middle- and upper-class liberals are breaking her way because she offers “deep structural change” without the deep change in our lives that is the price of Bernie’s political revolution. And it is why his support is more solid among the working-class and younger voters of color.
We have a choice between a technocrat and a populist. The former says, “I have a plan for that!” The latter’s campaign slogan is, “Not me, us.” And he insists, “The only way we achieve these goals is through a political revolution — where millions of people get involved.”
It’s not Warren but Bernie who envisions us coming together, listening and learning from each other and turning ideas into a blueprint for action. If we see that then, yes, lightning will strike twice and when it does, it will strike right down the line.